“I would do it soon.”
It was the word we were dreading to hear.
Herb and I were sitting in the office of Dr. Lars Svensson, world-renowned cardiovascular surgeon and Chairman of the Heart & Vascular Institute at the Cleveland Clinic. Dr. Svensson was reviewing the status of a defective heart valve that Herb had been monitoring since it was discovered in his mid-twenties. His most recent test had shown a worrisome increase in measurement numbers that appeared to be precariously close to the surgical stage. With the added concern of an aortic aneurysm, we knew it was time to get a plan in place.
The word soon was still swirling in our minds when we met with Dr. Svensson’s scheduling nurse, Becky, to make plans for our return trip to Cleveland. “He could do the surgery Wednesday, March 4th,” she said as she scrolled through the computer schedule. “That would give you Monday for an angiogram and Tuesday for pre opp meetings. You would need to plan on being here ten days post-surgery.” Her tone was kind and reassuring, and she exuded the same combination of confidence and compassion we had felt with Dr. Svensson.
“Don’t worry – you’re in great hands,” she told us. “This is what we do. Every day.”
And in that instant, we were heading into the uncharted waters of major heart surgery.
A Home Away From Home
The next three weeks became a blur of wrapping up life at home, organizing packing and making travel arrangements. Our years of travel had served us well, and I was struck by how much it felt as if we were heading out on vacation – only to be jolted back to the reality that a vacation this definitely was not. We arranged for transportation to and from Los Angeles International, the nearest airport with a non-stop flight to Cleveland, and kept our spirits dialed to a frequency of humor, hope and positive thoughts.
“You should check out the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame while I’m in the hospital,” Herb teased one night. “Maybe you can write a blog about it!” Although sightseeing was the furthest thing from either of our minds, it was fun to imagine how we would spend our time if we had the time to spend.
Our home in Cleveland was the InterContinental Hotel, owned by and connected to the Cleveland Clinic through the city’s skywalk system. We booked a room with access to the Club Lounge, which turned out to be a lifesaver of a place to retreat between hospital visits. With all-day tea and coffee service as well as buffet breakfast items, afternoon tea and late afternoon wine and canapés, our daughter Emily joked that it sounded like we were on a cruise ship – a scenario that never failed to make me smile despite the serious reason for being there.
The Club Lounge is run by a wonderful woman named Anntoinette. Part manager, part table clearer, part counselor, the ever-smiling Anntoinette gets to know you right away. She asks how you’re doing, where you’re from, who in your family is having surgery, how long you’ll be there. The day after Herb’s surgery, she stopped by my table. “I have a card for your husband,” she said, handing me a bright yellow envelope. “I knew he was going to be okay!”
Wednesday, March 4th
Our significant life experiences become entwined with the dates when they occur, forever altering our perceptions. No longer simply a box on a calendar, these months and days etch themselves in our memory, triggering images of a time and place. March 4th, for me, now belongs to Cleveland.
The alarm on Herb’s phone buzzed at 4:30 a.m. We quietly got ready to face the day, steeling ourselves with as much hope as we could muster to draw a cover over any lingering fear. Our son Andrew had arrived two nights earlier, and the three of us made our way to the assigned waiting area, where Herb was taken for surgery preparation. A short time later, Andrew and I were called back for a brief visit. From that time on, all we could do was wait.
We were given a pager that would alert us at different stages during Herb’s anticipated five-hour surgery. In addition to the new valve, he would be receiving a new aortic root, a repair of his ascending aorta and a bypass of one blocked artery, which was discovered during the angiogram. Andrew and I headed to a nearby Starbucks, settling in at a table in the light-filled atrium. This would become my favorite spot before visiting Herb in the early mornings. There was something about sitting among the potted trees, hanging sculpture and words of philosophical intention painted on one of the walls that I found comforting and inspiring.
8:17…Into the OR.
And then about twenty minutes later, the pager had another message: Report to the desk. My heart raced as Andrew and I gathered our empty cups and bags and practically raced to the desk. It was way too soon for another message, and I was terrified why we were being paged. “Press it again to get back to the main picture of the battery,” Andrew suggested. And when I did, there was the rest of the non-alarming message: for the family orientation meeting.
10:40…Major portion underway.
The morning minutes ticked by slowly. Andrew and I passed the time wandering the Clinic hallways, checking out various shops and cafés, walking the skyway back and forth to the hotel. We managed to entertain ourselves and make the most of our time together despite the little rectangular elephant in the room.
And then at 1:15 p.m. the elephant went off…Report to the front desk.
We were sent to a conference room, where Dr. Svensson shortly appeared in the doorway. “It went very well,” he said. I could have burst into tears and hugged the man. But I managed to keep my composure and listen carefully to what he had to say. It turned out that Herb’s faulty valve was not a bicuspid, as the tests had always indicated – a normal valve is a tricuspid – but a unicuspid, an even rarer condition. He went on to say that Herb had a very large heart, “the size of an athlete’s,” which had compensated for the valve all these years. With the new valve, it should return to a normal size.
“We always knew Herb had a big heart,” my friend Jennifer wrote when I texted her the news. It was the perfect thought for a perfect-ending day.
Friday, March 6th
Herb spent two days following surgery in the Intensive Care Unit. He emerged from anesthesia with his spirit, mind and sense of humor solidly intact, even raising his cup of cranberry juice in a toast to surviving surgery. Andrew and I kept our visits brief, but frequent, making the required call from the designated waiting room phone before entering. I was overwhelmed by the extraordinary care Herb received in the ICU. It was humbling to watch these talented nurses take such kind and compassionate care of the person I loved so incredibly much.
Late that afternoon, Herb was transferred to his hospital room in the “step-down” unit, and Andrew left for his “if everything goes well” planned flight home. I knew it was time for him to leave, but I also knew how much I was going to miss his company.
Saturday, March 7th
On the weekends, the Cleveland Clinic transforms itself from a bustling little city into what feels like a proverbial ghost town. The usually crowded hallways echo in their silence. Some of the shops and cafés close their doors, including “my” Starbucks (there are at least three, but I did have a favorite!). Access to the elevators linking the skyway to the medical building is locked, requiring a bit of detective work to figure out where the other set of elevators might be hiding.
Herb was doing well, adjusting to his post-surgery life out of the ICU. That afternoon, I took him to the hospital rooftop for a view of the city and a change of venue. It’s a wonderful space, with comfortable chairs placed along a row of windows as well as an outdoor walkway and patio.
That evening on my way to Herb’s room, I caught glimpse of what appeared to be a spectacular sunset. “C’mon,” I told him, wrapping his shoulders in a hospital blanket. “We’re heading back to the rooftop!”
Moments like this just have to be the best medicine.
My Days in Cleveland
My days in Cleveland were surprisingly busy. There’s something about being dropped in a new environment, developing a routine and finding your way that gradually becomes familiar. Except for the reason you are there, it’s a similar experience to traveling somewhere new. You need to survive; you need to figure it out; and you need to thrive.
My route from the hotel to Herb’s hospital room quickly became ingrained in my internal GPS. Past the Julia and Larry Pollock Gallery, past the Muslim prayer room, past the meditation chapel, turn left, then right. I found myself chatting with strangers as if they were people I knew. One night I met a woman in an elevator, and we continued our conversation on the way back to the hotel. I’m not sure if it was Cleveland’s familiar Midwestern friendliness that reminded me of my Minnesota roots or the fact that I was in a place with people who were in a similar situation or if it was that extroverted spirit that seems to magically appear whenever I’m somewhere new. Whatever it was, there seemed to be a big dose of comfort wherever I went.
While I welcomed the ease of not dealing with weather or traffic or transportation, I missed being outside. One particularly cold but beautiful early morning, I took a brief walk along the Clinic property. The sunrise was reflecting off windows in a building across the street, and the air felt invigorating and fresh.
I spent most of my time with Herb in his hospital room. He slowly began walking the halls, in five-minute stretches up to four times day. He rested in the room’s recliner, vowing to remain out of his hospital bed as much as possible. The room was like a revolving door, with doctors, nurses and other staff workers constantly in and out. There were issues along the way – the healing process is not a straight line – but he felt a little stronger with each new day. Milestones measured in moments.
Another Saturday, One Week Later
Just as Becky had predicted, we flew home to San Diego exactly ten days after Herb’s surgery. Cleveland Hopkins International Airport was quiet, our flight only half full. Even the normally vibrant LAX seemed unusually empty. While we had been immersed in a world of surgery and recovery, the impact of COVID-19 had slowly been picking up speed, casting a broad swath and leaving no one untouched.
I didn’t know how different life would become after being away for just two weeks. I didn’t know I would be spending my first day home foraging for food at empty grocery store shelves. Or that we would soon be quarantined, confined to our home for all but essential outings. All I knew was that my dearest Herb had made it through some incredibly serious surgery and that we were coming home.
Home. The word that has never sounded so sweet.